Chicken Coop Chatter©
We keep hearing either you want a hen to go broody to hatch some eggs or you do not want them to go broody and do not want chicks or you have no rooster so the eggs are not fertile. With the two different trains of thought here, Let's address the broody hens first.
First of all in spite of common belief, not all hens, nor all breeds will go broody. Through human intervention, some breeds no longer have broody tendencies. The most reliable chicken for brooding is a Silkie hen, however if you are fortunate, you may find one hen in your flock of any breed, that will go broody. A broody hen will set in a nest for long periods of time, she will pluck the soft feathers from her underside to feather the nest. This practice also allows her to feel the eggs against her skin. At this time, her body temperature rises as her body prepares to incubate the eggs. The hen's temperament may also change at this time. Typically she will protest anyone coming near her or anyone feeling under her for eggs. Do not be surprised if that sweet lovable little hen growls and pecks at you if you try to disturb her.
A young pullet and at times an older hen will get the urge to brood, however isn't really ready and may leave the nest for long periods of time, then return to the nest for long periods of time. If this is what is happening, remove the eggs. If the broody hen appears to be serious and ready to set on the eggs, leave her be, unless you are not wanting her to hatch eggs. If you have no rooster, the eggs will not be fertile, however, if you want to allow a broody hen, you can purchase fertile hatching eggs to allow her to do what nature intended. A serious broody hen will continue to attempt to set for days and weeks, so there is time to obtain the fertile eggs even via postal service. We very often ship out eggs that are intended for a broody hen to hatch and if you order as soon as the hen starts setting, you can have the eggs within 3 days which is plenty of time for her to complete the broody cycle.
While a hen is broody, she may have chosen the favorite nest in the coop, and you may find two hens occupying the nest at the same time or you may find a different hen in the nest while the broody leaves for food and water. If you want to allow the brooding, mark the eggs from the beginning; this way you will know if any other eggs have been laid and are fresh for gathering.
If the hen is serious about brooding and you wish to allow it. Be sure to place food and water near her, especially in the last week of incubation. She will not leave the nest and food and water is imperative to maintaining her health and vigor. Sadly I've heard of people that did not do this and the hen died from dehydration needlessly. If there is too much disturbance with other hens laying in the same nest as the broody, you can move her to a kennel, large cage or large box with food, water and her nesting material,so she can set peacefully. Though some people may put up curtains to shield the nesting hen, this may or may not discourage other hens from laying in that favored nest.
It is not unusual for a broody hen to soil her nest rather than get out to relieve herself. Unless it's very messy in the nest, leave it be. If it is messy, you can carefully clean the nest while she is absent from it. But clean only the area that is soiled and leave the nest in tact. She will rearrange it when she returns, but the less disturbance the better. Once a hen seriously takes on the roll of brooding, leave her be. By nature, she knows what she is doing. You need only keep an eye on her and make sure she has food and water at all times and to be sure she is maintaining good health.
It is not unusual for two hens to go broody at that same time or to share a nest. If through observation, you see they can co-exist and share the duties, then just leave them be. However if you see that the interloper is causing a disturbance, then you may need to remove the perpetrator from the nest and possibly from the coop to prevent this behavior or remove that nest to another protected location so the nesting hen is not disturbed. Some hens can co-exist and share the duties of setting; hatching as well as rearing the chicks; however you will need to carefully observe the two hens to be sure they are actually co-existing and not fighting for the nest.
We hear of people removing eggs to candle them for fertility. This practice will disturb the hen and is very discouraging and could cause her to leave the nest for too long at a time causing a lapse in development of those eggs, whether fertile or not, due to a cooling down and loss of humidity created by the hen. The hen is also turning those eggs several times a day. When you remove those eggs for the purpose of candling, you may not replace it exactly as you found it, again, altering the development of that egg or eggs. The very best recommendation we have, is to leave the hen alone and ONLY visit the nest when she is eating, drinking or dusting and do not disturb the nest unless absolutely necessary. The hen is geared for hatching eggs, she does know what she is doing without human intervention. Landrace breeds like our Icelandic and Swedish Flower Hens, have been nesting for centuries without human intervention. It is recommended that you observe the hen, just not disturbing her for unnecessary reasons.
Now, if you do NOT want the hen to go broody, there are a few things you can do to deter it. An old method was to douse the hen in cool water to lower her body temperature. If you follow this practice, you may need to do this more than once. (Never do this in winter) Removing the hen from the nest several times a day can be a hit and miss effort, and not everyone can do this every day. Another method is to remove her to a kennel, cage or box with food and water, but without any bedding. The less comfortable she is the less she will think about being broody. This may take a few days, along with a lot of protest, and it may take more than once to alter her thinking. You should remove any eggs throughout the day if other hens are also using that nest.
We have heard of people removing the eggs to finish incubating the last 3 days in a commercial incubator. Those people that have adopted that practice, are convinced they have a better hatch rate. We allow the hens to finish the job and have no record to prove either way which is the best method; however we do believe the hen is designed to do the job and incubators only simulate the hen, they do not perfect the hen or the hatch.
On day 18, the hen will position the eggs for optimum hatching. Do not disturb her or allow other disturbances. Your broody hen will not leave the nest, and will barely move a feather as she is in *lockdown* the humidity rises and she is in hatch mode. You can move her food and water within reach at this time but do not try to move her or disturb the nest in any way.
Through observation, you may hear peeping from beneath her which either indicates there are chicks hatching or they are still inside the shell and mama hen will softly cluck to them, which we can only assume is either soothing them, or encouraging them. You may witness your hen pecking at the egg shell. She is not trying to eat the chick, she is assisting it in hatching. She only does this if she senses the chick needs assistance. Do not be in a rush on day 21 to remove chicks or to see if there are unhatched eggs. Mama hen will not leave the nest for any length of time if she senses activity in the unhatched egg. Eggs can hatch either side of 21 days and up to 25 days, so do not be in a rush to toss unhatched eggs. Mama hen will do her own tossing or leave the nest entirely if she determines all chicks have hatched that will hatch.
Another practice that some people have adopted is that when the chicks hatch, they remove them to a brooder, thinking that the chicks are not warm enough or are not safe enough, or for various other reasons. Though we too have removed chicks, we do discourage this practice, the only good reason to remove them to a brooder is if the Mama hen is ill, has died, or for some reason has abandoned the chicks. Otherwise, leave the Mama hen to do what she is designed to do. She keeps her babies warm, protects them; she teaches them about dangers and about where the best food sources are. She points out food to them and teaches them to scratch for food as well as dust for cleanliness and parasite control. You miss out on all of the many lessons by intervening. As for dangers, Mama hen, becomes Mama bear if anything threatens or comes between her and her babies. She will fight to the death any invader in her territory while she is with her chicks.
As a possible scenario; if a broody hen was free to brood on her own without other hens around or human intervention, she would lay approximately a dozen eggs, one per day for 12 to 18 or more days, then she would set on the eggs to hatch them. She will typically cover the eggs with her soft feathers or bedding material any time she leaves the nest partly to keep them warm, and partly to disguise them from predators. With this scenario in mind, some of the eggs are as old as 20 days before the broody hen begins incubating them and some of the eggs are as new as one day. So there will be some differences in development with each of the eggs, which is also a reminder that 21 days is merely a benchmark or an average hatch date. We've found some people get in a huge hurry and assume if eggs have not hatched by the end of 21 days that they are either not fertile or will not hatch. That is far from actuality. This would be true whether you have a broody hen doing the hatching or an incubator. We have personal experiences of eggs hatching well over the 21 day mark, and have had customers report that eggs have hatched even later. If the eggs do not have an odor and are not weeping, just leave them a few days. It is very rare for an egg to explode in an incubator which seems to be the fear most people indicate. In all the years and hundreds of eggs hatched, we've only had one egg ever do that. Of course it's not a pleasant experience if it happens, but again this is a very rare occurrence. If this were to occur you will need to clean it up and sterilize your incubator, but it will be even more rare for this to happen under a broody hen. If a broody hen completely abandons the nest with some eggs still in it, and has not returned to the nest during the day or night, then you can clean the nest of the remaining eggs, because she has determined that all eggs are hatched that will hatch. Allow mama hen to be your guide.
When you first notice a broody hen, check her for parasites and treat as needed, preferably you do not want chicks hatching into the environment of external parasites, there are few if any products available to treat small chicks for parasites. Make sure the nest is clean at the beginning, then leave it be unless it becomes very soiled. If you notice parasites on one member of the flock all members need to be treated and the coop area needs to be cleaned to prevent further infestation. If you move a broody to a carrier, treat for parasites before setting up her new brooding area.
If you are allowing your hen to nest, count 21 days from the time you see she is seriously setting. If you are using a broody chicken to hatch duck or goose eggs, you will need to allow from 25-30 days for the larger eggs to begin hatching. Enjoy the experience and the excitement of seeing a Mama hen hatching the eggs and teaching her offspring how to survive. The less human intervention with the brooding process, hatching and the mama raising her chicks, the better. Always observe of course, but the more disturbance and the more you interfere, the less chance of your hen completing the cycle and the higher chance of loss of eggs and chicks.
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